(ISIS video, 2014)

More Biometrics, Booking Data Can Help Track, Stop Terrorists at Borders

Law enforcement entities gathering in Washington this week focused on border security measures including biometric screening to track and interdict a decentralized network of terrorists who “fan out across the globe to continue the bloody work.”

The State Department, along with INTERPOL and the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law in Malta, hosted U.S. law enforcement officials along with counterparts representing about 90 countries and organizations at the International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts to Defeat ISIS.

State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales told reporters after the meeting that a trio of “key tools” were highlighted: terrorist designations and sanctions, the use of passenger name data in securing borders, and biometrics “to screen for terrorists who might be trying to board planes or cross borders.”

The passenger name records, or PNR — consisting of standard personal information given to an airline at the time of booking — are “an incredibly powerful counterterrorism tool.”

“PNR can help analysts identify suspicious travel patterns, flagging threats that otherwise might have escaped notice,” Sales said. “It can also illuminate hidden connections between known threats and their unknown associates.”

As an example, Sales noted that Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad received explosives training in 2009 in Pakistan from people affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban. In February 2010, Shahzad arrived at JFK on a one-way ticket from Islamabad. “He was referred to secondary, because he matched the PNR targeting rule, so Customs officers interviewed him and released him,” the ambassador said. “Three months later, on May 1, 2010, a car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square. Investigators tied Shahzad to the car. Customs then placed an alert for Shahzad in its system. So when he booked a flight to flee the country, the system flagged it, and he was arrested at JFK as he attempted to fly to Dubai. He was convicted, and he’s now serving a life sentence.”

Last year, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2396 — “at the instigation and urging of the United States” — requiring all member countries to develop the same kind of PNR system in use by the United States.

“We used this week’s discussions at the conference to urge other countries to live up to their obligations under this new Security Council resolution, and develop and deploy those systems quickly,” Sales said.

The conference partners discussed biometrics as “a critical tool for verifying that travelers really are who they say they are.”

“Terrorists will try to mask their true identities, using any number of subterfuges: aliases, fake passports, and so on. It’s a lot harder for them to fake their fingerprints,” the ambassador noted. “And that’s why we collect biometrics from visitors to this country. We take their fingerprints, we take their facial scans, and we use that data to run against our watchlist of known and suspected terrorists.”

Sales referred to the indictment this month of Naif Abdulaziz M. Alfallaj, a Saudi who attended flight school in Oklahoma whose fingerprints were lifted from a document retrieved in Afghanistan — an application for al-Qaeda’s Farouq Camp, where four of the 9/11 hijackers were trained.

“Again, thanks to UN Security Council Resolution 2396, this civilian tool is now a global norm. The resolution requires all UN members to collect biometrics to spot terrorists if they attempt to board planes or cross borders. We’re urging our partners to implement this obligation as quickly as possible,” he said.

Asked how biometrics is revealing patterns of movement for foreign fighters and wannabe jihadists emigrating to join like-minded terrorists, Sales acknowledged that “some of the countries to which ISIS fighters might travel, or from which they might come, a number of those countries have not yet stood up PNR systems of the sort that we have in the United States, and of the sort that a number of our close partners have.”

“So it’s difficult for those countries to authoritatively track the movement of persons across their borders, especially including the movement of possible foreign terrorist fighters or other terrorists,” he added. “That’s one of the reasons why the United States led the effort in the UN Security Council to make mandatory the obligation for all UN members to collect and use PNR, data to develop those systems that we have here in the United States, and that the European Union has directed EU member states to implement by May of this year.”

“We confront a dangerous security environment in which multiple terrorist threats face us and in which those terrorist threats might be competing against one another — all the more reason for us to get serious about things like biometrics and PNR, law enforcement capabilities, and so on.”

INTERPOL’s Executive Director of Police Services Tim Morris said this week that biometric data recovered from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and the Gulf has identified terror suspects crossing borders in Europe and Asia.

“Warnings circulated via our global network continue to help countries identify and interdict foreign terrorist fighters as they attempt to cross borders. Where we see cooperation, we see results,” Morris said in a statement. “We need to make sure that frontline officers get the information they need to take action. A country’s decision on sharing information, a name, a DNA profile, or fingerprints, can make the difference in our global efforts to protect citizens from harm.”

INTERPOL currently has data on nearly 41,000 foreign-fighter terrorists. At the conference, the global police agency briefed participants on INTERPOL’s Project FIRST (Facial, Imaging, Recognition, Searching and Tracking) to enhance biometric data sharing among countries.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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